September 24, 2010

At the Cult of the Breast.

I had my first visit to a radiology clinic – which struck me as something of a cult. I was greeted with low lighting and sweet women who chatted easily about, and were obsessed with my breasts.

A few weeks earlier I had found a lump in my right breast. Pretty squishy, moved around easily – I had every reason to believe it was a cyst. A lumpy, tender mass of nothing-to-worry about stuff.

So I worried about it.

I researched – more than 50 percent of women apparently have cystic breasts. I have no history of cancer on either side of my family – even though my aunts smoked themselves neurotically anorexic in the 70s. But fortunately no breast cancer.

So I called the midwife/nurse practitioner who is the closest thing I have to a western medicine professional in my life. She was unavailable but anxiously recommended I see someone else immediately. So I called my son’s family practice doctor and she said she could see me the next day. She and her intern assistant spent a few minutes poking and prodding and then declared the need for a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound – “You’re 44 and you haven’t had one?” she asked with a cocked right eyebrow. “Well, even though the guidelines have changed, (I get to have a little smug smile here) I recommend you do this immediately and we’ll get you in.” (smile dissipates)

They had to squeeze my breast – er, that is, appointment, in amongst about 8 other women in the waiting room at the Cult of the Breast. We all dutifully took off our shirts in a pleasant, spa-like dressing room with lockers and keys on little stretchy bright colored key chains you put around your wrist. We donned attractive pink crossover smocks and waited patiently amongst fake fuchsia orchids to get our mammary glands squished by a machine.

The first technician was petite, sweet and caring. She kept asking me if it hurt – which it didn’t -and then rearranging my tea cup sized breast, gently stretching it towards the cold metal slab while instructing me to relax my shoulder or tilt my head. “I know this can sometimes be a little painful,” she smiled. “But it doesn’t take long.”

“It’s not really that painful,” I reported. “Just humiliating.” We giggled in girlish agreement.

Afterwards she brought me over to a small, pretty alcove and offered me some coffee. I think I read somewhere that coffee was bad for cystic breasts. Oh well.

Then it was time for the ultrasound. This tech was equally sweet although possibly pathologically uncommunicative. She squeezed goo on my breast and then put the ultrasound machine on it and stared at the screen as intently as any teenage boy playing a video game. There was another woman with her whom she talked to about what she was doing, my breast the object, my humanity, clearly unconsidered. “Are you in training,” I asked. “Oh, yeah,” she laughed seemingly surprised that I had vocal chords as well as breasts, “Sorry.”

After 15 minutes of seeing scary red areas highlighted on the ultrasound and surrendering to the idea that I must indeed be afflicted with a most virulent malignant breast tumor, they left and told me they’d be back soon with the doctor. So I meditated for a few minutes in the lovely low lighted, warm room, it was actually pleasant. It’s times like this that my years of meditation practice seem super handy.

So the doc came in – very kindly older man with neatly combed white hair and metal-framed square glasses. “Well, this all looks like cysts,” he said. “Just benign cysts. No cancer here,” he said kindly. He didn’t touch me, just placed the ultrasound machine on my breast and stared at the screen.

At the Cult of the Breast it’s all about the cancer. There are two ways of looking at things: cancer or no cancer. Cut, chemo, radiate? or not. I imagined a nightly fire ceremony ritual out in the parking lot where everyone chants: Save the breasts! Save the breasts!

“So why do I suddenly have cystic breasts,” I asked him. “What’s the etiology?”

“Well, I am very sure it’s not cancer,” he said dosey do-ing the question nicely. “But, well, maybe we should keep an eye on that and check it out again in three months.”

“Oh, so it could turn into cancer?” I asked.

“Well, it’s just a cyst,” he pirouetted, “but we should keep an eye on it anyway. So I’d like to see you back again in three months, okay?” And he then sashayed out. Kind, paternal and certain – but not terribly interested in extrapolation.

Maybe it’s because there are no researched-based answers. Maybe they want to create neither alarm nor false hope. Maybe they are not used to visitors questioning (I find that hard to believe – this is Asheville). Maybe we are just a teeny bit over-obsessed with our breasts.

So the questions starting nudging themselves in: Why does someone like me – yoga teacher, meditator, vegetarian, holistic, progressive, vitamin-taking, clean-living, politically correct, acupuncture-getting dirt worshipper have to visit the Cult of the Breast anyway? How could I possibly get cancer? I mean if I can get it, can’t anyone? Isn’t cancer  something that happens to unhealthy people? The mindless Wal-mart shopping masses? Why should I spend any time thinking about cancer?

In my ultrasound room meditation I succumbed to those myopic, narcissistic questions to deflect reality. Pointing fingers tends to make one feel safe. I remember when a friend from my son’s pre-school got breast cancer and had surgery and people from the school were giving her get well gifts. A fellow granola mama whispered to me, “She’s got cancer and they gave her white flour croissants! Can you imagine – white flour! It’s probably what caused it in the first place!”

Diet is important, it’s true, and there certainly is lots of research on blueberries and green tea and all the wonderful things you can do to avoid cancer, but the bottom line is, we just don’t know. And in my arrogant health connoisseur kind sort of way, I’d like to trust that I am doing all the right things. But the reality is that we have so much less control over it than we’d like to believe.

According to one of my favorite master yogis, Sri Krishna of the Bhagavad Gita, life is about doing your best – you do what’s right just because it’s the right thing to do, not because it makes you eligible to join the Granola Cult and shun the Cult of the Breast.

‘One that controls the senses with the mind, and undertakes the yoga of action with the action-senses, but is unattached to the fruits of action, is the best.’ Bhagavad-Gita, 3:7

The process was scary, but it also helped to expand my heart chakra – with more compassion for those for whom the first visit to the radiology clinic is only the beginning of a long road to radical western medical intervention. And it’s no coincidence that the breasts are located in the area of the heart chakra. I remember one yogic nun telling me after I had my son that breast feeding was good for the child because it opens their heart chakra. While that may be true, my experience was that it opened my heart chakra. My husband, ever the sensitive, kind man that he is, was so envious, he wanted to have that experience so badly because he saw how joyous my son became and how much it softened me.

I certainly don’t want to ideate on it, jinx myself or “create my own reality” by buying into the idea that I could get cancer. But the fact is, anything can happen at any time, and the idea that I can with enough positive intention, or the right talisman or the perfect essential oil, avoid it, is unreliable at best.

What I can do is strive to live in a state of gratitude and openness to grace with integrity and humility remembering that I am always being exquisitely and intimately taken care of – even if things don’t always go they way I think they should.

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